Updated: Jan 24, 2020
Like many others, I have struggled with mental health issues for quite some time now. For some that could be enough of a deterrent to stop them from studying abroad, but fortunately not for me. Studying abroad had been a dream of mine since childhood, so when I found out it was a real opportunity I jumped on it. Then once it became official, I started preparing myself for the best experience possible. The last thing I wanted to do was have any down spells pop up while I’m thousands of miles away from home. So I decided before I left I needed to create a strategic plan and have an arsenal of tools to help prepare myself for any difficulty’s I may face once abroad. For my study abroad experience I chose to study abroad in Viterbo, Italy during the summer of my junior year. I chose Viterbo because it offered my dream course, travel photography! I am a journalism major with a minor in photography so the thought of getting to study my passion in Italy, somewhere I’ve always dreamed of traveling to, excited me beyond belief! I chose to go during the summer time for a couple of reasons. Besides just wanting to save money, the main reason I chose a summer session was because I knew it was the perfect length of time for me, as I felt a full semester abroad was too long for me. I am very happy to say that in the end, I did not encounter any problems while abroad! The only problem I faced was some moderate homesickness at times but that’s completely normal and to be expected when going abroad. As much as I enjoy travel, a summer session was perfect for me. By the time I left, I was happily drained and ready to go home. So my friends, I compiled a list of all the things that helped me prepare for my trip abroad. Hopefully, they can help you too! So I present to you, my biggest tips on how to set yourself up for a great time abroad.
1. Know yourself When deciding when and where to study abroad take everything into consideration. Yourself, your finances, everything. How long would you like to be gone and where do you think would be the best fit for you? Many study abroad programs have a variety of sessions to choose from including USAC. USAC provides shorter summer and winter sessions, full semesters, and even year sessions. If you don’t think you could do a full semester look into a possible summer or winter session. Which country do you think would be not only fun but provide you with an easier adjustment compared to others? What classes are offered? Which classes would be the most exciting and useful for you and your major? Ask yourselves these kinds of questions when deciding.
2. Research After you’ve selected your destination do some research on the country before you travel. Learn some basic phrases in the local language and what kinds of cultural differences to expect once you arrive. Doing this will help you with an easier adjustment as you will already have some prior knowledge on what to expect before arriving. Read USAC’s study abroad toolkit and make sure to research what kind of weather to expect when over there too. I highly recommend going to YouTube for research too. There are so many great videos on how to pack, what kinds of things to expect once abroad, what kinds of fun things you can do once you arrive etc. it was a great resource tool for me and really helped hype me up!
3. Learn coping techniques Before you leave it's important to prepare yourself for any difficulties you may face, especially if you’ve ever previously dealt with mental health issues. It’s important to remember that bad days can and do happen and you may experience some culture shock once you arrive. That is okay and totally normal to experience. Learn some coping/grounding techniques or activities that can help ease you the difficulties. Grounding techniques are especially useful for those who deal with anxiety. There are a ton of techniques and activities out there from exercise, reading, yoga, meditation etc. A simple google search is all you need to start learning about all the different coping mechanisms and activities out there! If you see a therapist make sure to talk to them about techniques that could help you once abroad and make sure to keep their number or email on hand. My favorite thing to do if I was feeling a little drained or homesick was to take a walk outside while listening to some music. Doing this allowed me to relax and take in my surroundings. It really helped relax me and re-charge my excitement and gratefulness to be abroad. I also highly recommend looking into mindfulness meditation, It is life changing! If you are on any medication make sure to stay consistent with taking it and bring enough to last your entire session!
4. Reach out and stay connected Make sure to stay connected to those back home and keep them updated! Staying connected will help you feel at ease knowing everyone you love is just a phone call away. If you’re feeling down don’t be afraid to reach out to the other students in your program or talk to your USAC advisors! USAC is there to help you and chances are other students are feeling the same way as you. When I was feeling a little down talking to some of the other students helped me a ton. I learned many were feeling the same way I was! You and the other students are all in the same boat just remember that! You are all in this together.
5. Journal Last but not least, journaling. This is a classic piece of advice that can be found in every self-help article ever, but journaling is especially great when studying abroad! Document all the adventures that come your way! It will absolutely be worth it in the end when you can look back and relive all the amazing things you did when abroad! I mean it, document everything from the people to the food, to a detailed description of the room you stay in. Being able to look through my journal and relive my experiences makes me overjoyed. Doing this helps keeps those memories fresh and vivid. As time goes on our memories fade, but journaling helps keeps those moments we love fresh in our minds, letting us really re-live them over and over again. Trust me, it is so unbelievably worth it, I love ending my day by thumbing through my journal. It sends me to bed with a smile on my face every time.
I am so fortunate enough to say that I had the time of my life while abroad! Getting to study abroad in such a small community like Viterbo, really changed me for the better. I got to fully immerse myself in Italian culture and share my experiences and passion with some of the most amazing people from all over. The other students and I became a family over there and I will cherish those moments I had with them for the rest of my life. USAC provided me with such a wonderful opportunity that helped provide me with every tool I’d ever need to have a successful time abroad. Including in a ton of fun field trips letting us visit places like Rome where we got to see the Colosseum, and other unique places like Spoleto Falls, Civita di Bagnoregio, Pitigliano, Siena and so much more places! Some of the other students and I even got visit other countries, flying to places like Barcelona in Spain and Skopelos Island, Greece! Truly the best summer ever! I really made the most out of my time abroad and you can too. I want others to be able to experience what I did. Mental illness is a serious matter and to many the idea of studying abroad when worried about their mental health can be extremely daunting and can deter students from pursuing time abroad. As someone who has openly struggled with mental health issues, I want others to know that if I can do it you can too! Mental illness is unfortunate, but we should never let it stop us from trying to live our best lives. Studying abroad is a once in a life time opportunity. If you have the opportunity to study abroad I highly recommend you do, you won’t regret it! With a little preparation you can do anything you put your mind to.